A story has been circulating online about a black man who incited a riot in Boston. Like many of his compatriots, he lived in constant fear of an oppressive police state. The feeling was that officers could imprison him – or even kill him – at any time with few consequences. 

On Monday his fears were realized when he was shot twice in the chest by heavily armed law enforcement. Conflicting stories have emerged about what happened; one officer reported the suspect struck him with a club, but several bystanders contradicted his account. Witnesses claim the victim was unarmed and was merely “leaning upon a stick” when he was murdered. 

This man’s name was Crispus Attucks and this event did not happen last week, it happened on March 5th, 1770. His death was the first of five in an event forever known as the Boston Massacre. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later wrote about Attucks: “He is one of the most important figures in African-American history, not for what he did for his own race but for what he did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African-American heritage is not only African but American and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America.”

Protesters of today are asking to be heard by government leaders who don’t seem to care about them. Like the colonists, they call for autonomy from a centralized power that doesn’t represent their unique interests. The positive change resulting from the tragedy of Mr. Attucks’ death – the first casualty of the American Revolution – was a new form of government “…of the people, by the people, for the people…” Two and a half centuries later, our state’s reliance on federal funding (and the spending mandates which accompany it) has tarnished that legacy and all but silenced the people from having a meaningful voice in their local communities. 

Challenging the Leviathan to reclaim our liberties is daunting enough without a process overcomplicated by arbitrary filing deadlines and restrictive campaign finance laws. These burdensome regulations have proven more effective at disenfranchising minority candidates and their supporters than stopping pervasive campaign finance fraud. 

This year, ballot access will be made even more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. Grassroots campaigns inspired by recent protests to affect positive change will unnecessarily struggle to obtain the qualified signatures required to get on the ballot. Accommodations should certainly be made to reduce this burden including allowing for signatures to be collected electronically (as other states have already done), or ideally re-evaluating RI’s antiquated election laws altogether.

Despite this call for equitable change, the RI General Assembly still refuses to meet to modify these ballot access laws (or any laws relating to the social injustice we all see). Why should they? These laws are specifically designed to favor the incumbent political party which has held power in this state for over 85 years. The first step towards real change requires removing institutional barriers preventing oppressed voices from being heard.